Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dj Buddy Beaverhausen's Q&A with Producer Joel Dickinson

I am thrilled to have my very first interview for this blog with none other than Iowa-born, Minneapolis-based remixer extraordinaire, electronic music producer, recording engineer and DJ, Joel Dickinson. Though we've yet to meet, Joel and I have become friends over the internet and seem to share similar sensibilities regarding dance music and movies.

Wikipedia reports: Many of [Joel's] remixes and productions have attained Billboard Club charting status, including Eddie X ft. Niki Harris - "This Time Baby" (#5) and C+C Music Factory ft. Scarlett Santana -"Rain" (#8). His remix(es) of Dolly Parton's "9 to 5..." and Bette Davis' "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" (from "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?") are regarded as camp club classics and are played somewhere in the world every night to a rapturous response. A number of his productions have also attained cult status, including the Minneapolis house classic, Phreakshow, and his club remix of Liza Minnelli's "Cabaret."

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Joel Dickinson: Ms. Beaverhausen, thanks for this fabulous opportunity. I am humbled to be interviewed - and even more honored to be the first! One day, I think I'll pen my memoirs and you'll have to write the introduction!

Buddy Beaverhausen: My pleasure. I'll start by taking notes right now.

JD: When I first came across your promo dj mixes, I jokingly said, "Oh, wouldn’t it be a hoot if something of mine were on one?” Then, as I looked at more and more discs, I found tons of my tracks and it became clear you were one of my biggest supporters! And you had EXCELLENT taste in music. To have my stuff even appear in the same breath as some of the “big names” you include on those discs was a true honor and welcome surprise! The next time I make it to NYC, I am definitely treating you to dinner or something.

BB: I first discovered you as Thee Werq'n B!tches, and I thought, who is this amazing, camp-loving, obviously out dj! And, as you know, I've used some of your material from that period on my promos. Where did the "Werq'n B!tches" name come from?

JD: I actually started out as DJJD, that was obviously when my career was more dj-focused and less production-heavy. In 2000, I was introduced to the legendary local dj, Danny Shaffer. Danny is such a talented dj – he always had special edits, remixes and retouches of everything for his sets. I am so inspired by his creativity and dedication. I had already been dabbling in remixing, but with Danny’s encouragement, I got a little bit more serious and put together some things for him to play in his sets. It was around this time I changed from DJJD to Thee Werq’n B!tches. All the remixes I produced solo up until 2010 carried the TWB name.

During this period, I felt my stuff was pretty amateurish and I enjoy a sense of anonymity, so having a remix moniker was a great idea. I have always used "thee" as a way to indicate something definitive (e.g., the Junior Vasquez club mix of Cher's One By One will always be “thee” remix, IMHO). In the early aughts, Danny and I used "werq" frequently (I believe at the time that was a less well-acknowledged spelling; "work" and "werk" were more prominent) - and of course all my mixes "werq'd," so that was fitting. The apostrophe N was added as an nod to Steve Miller Band's "Rock'n Me" (one of my favorite songs of all-time). And I chose to go with the plural, "bitches," because it represented the fragmentation and many facets of my personality and my art. “Bitches" was changed to "B!tches" in order for the name to be a bit less offensive to those unfamiliar with how I had reappropriated the term. Someone once asked me who "Thee Werq'n B!tches" would be named and of course the answer is simple - Doralee, Judy and Violet [from the movie 9 to 5 -- BB]. But, never be confused - all of Thee Werq'n B!tches' mixes were completed by me and me alone.

BB: How did you come to be a protege of Junior Vasquez, and during what time period was that?

JD: Of course, I have a long association with Junior Vasquez. The first dance mixes I ever bought were on the CD5 for Cher's "One By One" – I just got it for the picture on the front and it was on sale at my local Target. Little did I know that would start a lifelong appreciation for Junior’s production work and artistry. For many, many, many years after that, I was just a very distant fan and bought every release I could get in Iowa. After I had first started dj'ing, I began to experiment with editing and remixing.

As, as I worked to understand the technology, artistry and theory of electronic music production, I was heavily influenced by the things I love to listen to. This includes massive amounts of show tunes and "standards," Steve Miller Band and Junior Vasquez productions. Believe it or not, I had never listened to music on the radio until college so my exposure to popular music was extremely limited.

As my work grew more refined over the years, word has gotten out and I've been so lucky to have some very supportive fans – and some of those fans gave some of my tracks to Junior himself. Over the years, I’ve had the distinct honor of having people mistake my work for Junior’s (mixes include Deborah Cox’s “Up & Down” and “Who Do U Love,” BeyoncĂ©’s “One Night Only (from Dreamgirls),” and some others). Those productions don’t have nearly the polish and shine Junior demands from studio work, so the idea that they could be mistaken for his own stuff was really flattering/intimidating/encouraging.

Flash forward several years and I found myself in contact with Billy Waters and John Michael DiSpirito - who are both excellent supporters and talented collaborators. We were able to work on several remixes and eventually they caught the ear of Junior. Not long after that, he had approached us to engineer and remix several tracks with him. Of course, those tracks have special resonance now, as two of them were among Whitney Houston’s last singles, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and “Million Dollar Bill.” “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” was – I think – the first thing I helped engineer for Junior. And talk about intimidating! How does one approach remixing one of their favorite vocalists of all-time, singing a huge Diane Warren “anthem of strength” while working for one’s music-production idol at the same time?

Looking back, I’m so proud of the work we accomplished on those productions and I have Whitney to thank for making it all possible. All the pieces came together thanks to that beautiful voice and the opportunities that arose from those productions opened doors I never even knew existed!

For the Red Party 2010, John Michael, Billy and I tackled Kelly Clarkson – “Already Gone,” Barbara Sheree – “Power to the People,” Andrea Carnell – “You Used To Know” and, of course, Whitney Houston – “Million Dollar Bill.” For the Pride 2010 event, the three of us were able to tackle some tracks that had amazing and definitive Junior mixes during their initial release - Cher's "Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," Cyndi Lauper's "Come On Home" - and we did an original track, "Sway" with Paul Mahos (the amazing vocalist for New Life Crisis) (this track will finally be released this year!). The Cher and Cyndi tracks were engineered specifically for Junior and being such a huge fan of his original mixes from the Factory and Arena days, I knew the bar was set very high. Thankfully, we delivered some great mixes that are different from the original Junior mixes but still pack a punch.

We also worked on his mix of Whitney Houston's "My Love Is Your Love" for the birthday event that year. That one is probably one of my favorite mixes I've worked on - the breakdown where there’s just the piano and Whitney is heartbreaking. I later reworked this bit into a full mix, labeled "Joel Dickinson Piano Mix.” Programming and engineering that piano solo is probably the highlight of my production career so far."

Last year, Junior approached Billy Waters and myself to engineer Junior's mix of Sandy B & Janice Robinson's "The Real Me." This is a "Gets Better"-themed project that I really hope sees a release. It was a great Pride track and Sandy & Janice's vocals were just amazing to work with. I never thought I'd get to work with one of those two ladies, let alone both! And it has a great, simple message that the world needs to hear now. Junior has always been great about seeking out socially conscious songs that speak to his audiences and give voice to their emotions. He did this in 2001 with the all-star “What’s Going On” tribute and again in 2011 with the “It Gets Better” theme. I am so honored to have worked with Billy and Junior to deliver this really meaningful song with a good club thump!

BB: What was your experience with Junior like?

JD: Junior Vasquez is a very complicated person, much like most artists I know. But, his creativity is truly endless. He would come up with some of the most random creative directions, but they would yield some of the most interesting and valuable results. He really knows how to get the best out of his engineers and collaborators. Unfortunately, due to my distance from NYC, I have only been able to meet him face to face a handful of times. But one thing is always clear: Junior just lives, breathes (and probably eats) the NYC house movement.

Once, just after we had started working with him, he played a venue in Maplewood, Minnesota (a suburb of Minneapolis). It was so cool to see him so close to home, but there's something about Junior. He embodies NYC house music so much so that without NYC, it just doesn't have quite as strong an impact. Also, Midwestern audiences are notoriously stubborn to warm up to house music.

The strangest thing for me is hearing Junior play locally vs. hearing him in NYC. It's like a total opposite reaction. The Midwest doesn't have that house history ingrained as deeply in the local cultural fabric (except Chicago). So, the little references to a classic track that get a holler from the crowd in NYC are totally lost on a more local audience. So whenever I engineer for Junior, I have to get into “NYC house mode.” Junior has such a wealth of knowledge when it comes to dance music, he’s great about throwing an old school reference, bit or even sample into something current. Of course, he has a strong attachment to “Can You Party,” so there’s frequently a little bit of that flavor dropped into the mix. It’s his signature tune.

My connection to the NYC house scene and Junior is quite different than so many of my colleagues. Whenever I go to a Junior party in NYC, I'm always introduced to new fans who are shocked that I have never lived in NYC and have so little direct physical connection to the music or "the scene." It's kind of nice being having some healthy detachment from “the scene” sometimes but it can be a real bummer. There is nothing worse than hearing, "Oh, Junior played your mix of X, Y and Z last weekend and it sounded awesome" and me having never even heard said tracks on a big sound system - let alone played by the maestro himself!

BB: Your mixes are now done under your own name, as Audio Assembly, Hell & Keller, and in conjunction with Jerome Farley. First off, Farley also worked with Vasquez. Is that where you two got to know each other? Secondly, are you afraid that all these remixer titles are counter-productive in getting your name out there? Could you discuss your collaboration with all these other remixers more?

JD; Yes, I have so many monikers now, but those are mostly shared. Here’s a run-down to clarify:
• Audio Assembly = Joel Dickinson, John Michael DiSpirito and Billy Waters;
• Hell & Keller = Joel Dickinson and John Michael DiSpirito
• Farley + Dickinson = Jerome Farley and Joel Dickinson
• Thee Werq'n B!tches = Joel Dickinson
• Joel Dickinson = just Joel.

It's so hard to list everyone's names with these collaborative projects. So, the monikers become a necessity. It does concern me that I'm basically building four brands at any given time (Thee Werq’n B!tches is currently retired), but I think my work is solid across the board, so each brand is instilled with some pretty rigid artistic standards. I've started using my real name as much as possible just to try to avoid confusion. Looking back, maybe that would have been good from the start, but at the time, Thee Werq’n B!tches was a really memorable name - which is so key when building a brand.

Working with Jerome Farley, much like working with my other collaborators is a real joy. I did not know Jerome during his years as Junior's manager and at JVM, but of course, I'm a huge fan of his efforts there and have great respect for him. Jerome's a seasoned pro; great with the business aspects of industry and very knowledgeable about dance music. It's so nice to have him as a collaborator and supporter. My work with him has been almost exclusively on new songs (except for Tony Orlando's "Tie A Yellow Ribbon") and we've even written some original material that will hopefully be released down the line. I'm really excited for our upcoming work, as well as my other collaborative efforts.

The collaboration process itself is much more complicated to describe. I will start off by thanking the Internet. When I first started doing homemade edits and things in the 90s, it seemed completely impossible that I would ever get to collaborate with industry pros from around the world.

I think the workflow itself really depends on the project. Sometimes, I'll do most of a track pretty competently in a first pass, so my collaborators provide another ear and expand, improve and refine my work. Other times, most of the work might be done by my collaborators and I’ll hop on board after the first pass and work with the track after they’ve taken first shot. That's one of the great joys about working with Billy, John Michael and Jerome - they all know how to let me be a crazy, slightly undirected artist when I get an idea and then work with me to refine, expand, alter and add to those ideas to present a nice, polished product. And then, when someone else takes a go at the first pass, I’ll chime in with my feedback and additional production to help bring their ideas into focus.

BB: Well, I certainly have enjoyed your work over all this time. Any idea if Thee Werq'n Bitches will ever werq it again in the future?

JD: Oh yes, I think at some point they'll probably make a comeback. I decided to retire the moniker when I changed my focus from dj’ing to solely production. I guess since things were “getting serious,” I figured I should have a name people would at least be able to spell right. I can’t tell you how many confused variations I have seen on mislabeled copies of my remixes. My favorite though has to be “Three Wrecked Witches” – which is clearly the Sanderson Sisters, not me.

When Thee Werq’n B!tches do come out of retirement, I think it will be when I finally do the follow-up to "No Wire Hangers!," the smash hit that earned the award for "Gayest Thing on the Internet" from VH1's Best Week Ever. People still love that one and I'll be most well-known for it. But there are certainly worse things to be well-known for, so I'll take it!

I think my greatest general contribution to the dance music world as Thee Werq’n B!tches was bringing that camp sensibility to my work, as you’ve noted. Over the last ten years, I feel like dance music has gotten incredibly aggressive and serious. I miss that tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. So, I took it upon myself to take this on as my personal manifesto and I started really cranking out some good remixes of classic camp tracks.

I always wanted a proper club mix of Liza Minnelli’s “Cabaret” – nobody had done it, so I went for it myself. My best friend, Ted, always picks out my “Halloween remix.” One year, he picked out “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” by Bette Davis (from “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”) and I just dug right in and made it work. That one is a waltz, so trying to restructure to a 4/4 signature was tricky, but I think I pulled it off pretty well. He’s been begging me to do Mia Farrow’s rendition of the theme from “Rosemary’s Baby” next. I think that would have to have some Ruth Gordon dialogue splashed in ala my remix of Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5”. So, maybe that will pop up sometime this September…

BB: My blog post about the theme from "Rosemary's Baby" on last year's Halloween Countdown was muy popular! I say go for it.

JD: I have a ton of other projects in the hopper. I just finished up a remix of Swishcraft ft. Ben Holder & LFB – “Feels Like Heaven” which will be available as a Beatport Exclusive beginning 2/21. This year, I’m going to be doing a lot more original tracks and songwriting, so expect lots of new material.

There’s also a lot of other projects coming up, but it feels like most of the big exciting projects have confidentiality agreements written into the contracts, so I can’t even talk about them until they’re out in the marketplace. Rest assured, I’m over the moon about these possible projects so when/if they happen, I hope you’ll be as excited as I am!

BB: I'm sure I will be, probably more so. Anything you'd like to add to readers of this blog? It's a very international readership.

JD: First off, I want to again thank my collaborators, fans, colleagues, friends and enemies for helping to push me to my limits. None of this would be possible without your support – or criticisms.

I always want to remind everyone and anyone who suffers from depression or mental illness - there is help and there is hope. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has resources for U.S. citizens (http://www.samhsa.gov/). For those abroad, please visit your government's website for local resources.

Last, but not least, keep listening to the music, Joel Dickinson productions and your heart! And, most importantly, keep reading the Buddy Beaverhausen blog!!

BB: Joel, thanks for that plug, your time, and your thoughtful answers. Look forward to hearing your remix of Swishcraft and whatever surprises you have coming up for us (hopefully to include "Rosemary's Baby")! You are one of my favorite remixers and it indeed was my pleasure having you as my first interviewee. Thanks so much!

2 comments:

  1. Wow. This is what Octavia Butler refers to as a 'positive obsession'--work that becomes all-consuming. Hard to believe he never even listened to the radio until he was out of high school. Great job, Buddy--a real close-up of a dj/producer's work.

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  2. Great interview, enjoyed the read!

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